Two women looking at laptops

(In)equality. Career Growth. Leadership in Communications

— Beth Keebler, Account Director 

Gender (in)equality, career growth, and the future of marketing and communications disciplines were some of the main themes at this year’s USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism’s Women in Communications Leadership Forum. Keynote speaker and former Obama and Clinton Communications Director, Jennifer Palmieri, stole the audiences’ attention when she spoke about diversity in business, gender differences and the definition of professional. Her insights were peppered with unfiltered commentary about her experiences on the 2016 Presidential Campaign, which energized the audience. She set the stage for discussions throughout the day about whether women should strive to take on stereotypically male behaviors versus work to evolve the collective perception of what it means to be “professional.” In turn, this would create space for leaders with diverse approaches to communication, management and strategy.

I was most compelled by the panel “Grit + Grace: How female leaders realize their full potential.” Katie Huang Shin, president of Technology and chief strategy officer, WE Communications, joined the group of esteemed women leaders from The Walt Disney Company, LinkedIn, Golin and Edelman in a TED-style panel. Participants each shared a short story about a challenge they experienced in their professional life that set them on their current career path before participating in an open Q&A with the audience. I sat down with Katie following the event to discuss her story, and listen to her perspective on conference themes and her advice for building a career in communications.  

Q: What inspired you to make the jump from healthcare to technology PR?

A: In 1997, a lot was happening in Silicon Valley. Google had registered its domain name. Netflix had just been founded. And Cisco made its first appearance in the Fortune 500. There seemed to be so much to learn, so much to share, and so many problems to solve. I was intrigued and inspired by the pace of innovation and the role technology could play in our lives. There was so much opportunity on the horizon, and I was hungry to be part of it.

Q: What setbacks did you face breaking into the PR industry, and how did you overcome them?

A: For almost a year during the transition, I applied for countless corporate and agency roles and was consistently told that I didn’t have relevant experience or industry knowledge or was too old to make the move. If you’ve ever been in one of these long job searches, you know … it’s hard. It can wear you down. You start to question your decisions. You start to doubt yourself. You wonder if you should give up. But, I resolved to not let rejection determine my future. In fact, this experience sharpened my determination and zeal. I was finally given an opportunity to join a leading technology PR agency. I had been in the workforce for five years, yet I didn’t have any directly relevant agency and industry experience, therefore their offer required me to start at the bottom of the ladder. I was torn about what to do, questioned the transition and my ability. I reminded myself why I started the search in the first place. Instead of watching the technology industry flourish from the sidelines, I wanted to be part of the movement. I took a leap of faith and decided to go for it. I left the job and the industry I know, took a pay cut, and joined this agency as an assistant account executive. And the rest is history. You know what? I would do it again today.

Q: What advice do you have for managing through adversity?

A: Fear is a powerful emotion, it can prevent you from reaching your full potential if you give it the space. Center yourself, know yourself, identify your passion. Have the courage and conviction. These steps will fuel your determination and strength to believe in yourself when confronted with doubts, obstacles and challenges. In the words of Michael Jordan: “Obstacles don’t have to stop you. If you run into a wall, don’t turn around and give up. Figure out how to climb it, go through it or work around it.”

Q: Bringing your whole self to the workplace was another theme at the event. What is your advice for balancing being yourself with fitting in or living up to cultural norms?

A: We heard from other women leaders at the conference that it is critical to be your whole self at work. It is about authenticity. Who you are drives what you do. As leaders, we have to create an environment that enables our team to bring their individuality and diversity to work. 

Q: What qualities besides grit and grace are important to being a successful leader?

A: Integrity. People want to work for and work with people who are ethical. With integrity, you know you will do the right thing for your business and treat people the right way. 

Q: What’s the best career advice you have for communication professionals?

A: Immerse yourselves in your clients’ business. Practice communication as a business-critical function. I was incredibly fortunate to work for some amazing communication strategists early in my career. That experience grounded my belief in communication as powerful vehicle for competitive advantage, and for companies to achieve their goals.

Q: What keeps your grounded as a leader?

A: Having worked for seven agencies, I have learned from both good and bad leaders. At the end of the day, I go back to what I witnessed growing up. My father was a ship captain for decades before moving into management. I learned from him to be the kind of leader people want to follow. I also think about Jerry McGuire and his relationship with his client Rod Tidwell. In the game of business, I am an agent for my team. Remember you are only as good as your team, and remember your job is to challenge and support: Challenge your team to reach, while giving them unwavering support.  

Q: As a seasoned leader and business professional, how do you continue to invest and stay on top of your career?

A: Believe and live the need for continuous development. I believe I will forever be a “work in progress.” I’m always curious, constantly intrigued, and I will never be done with learning.